You’d be hard-pressed to find hundreds of adults consuming vegan cuisine in one place never mind a cafeteria full of kids, so it was a great sight to see students not only dining on vegan lasagna, but actually liking it last week.
“It’s not meat,” said sophomore Dan Jabuick as his friend Kevin Do slurped down a cup of vegetarian fried brown rice, “but it’s good.”
Last week Rob Weber, Director of Branford Schools Dining Services, teamed up with local vegetarian restaurant to offer the first all-vegan lunch service for students in the state. The partnership is part National Nutrition Month and the Simply Good Fresh & Local campaign by Chartwells, the food service provider for Branford schools.
“I just think it’s a great partnership to work with local restaurants,” said Weber who brought G-Zen owners Mark Shadle and Ami Beach Shadle into the BHS cafeteria to host a cooking demonstration last Friday as well as offer two healthy meal options in place of traditional hot lunches.
For the normal $3 lunch price, students and faculty chose between a vegan vegetable lasagna or a vegetable fried brown rice.
Senior Rachel Celentano said, as she scooped up the last of her fried rice, “It’s way better than what they usually make.”
“I would love to use these products,” Weber said of the organic vegetable offerings prepared by Chef Mark, “but it’s a cost issue.” Despite not being able to consistently offer organic produce all the time to Branford student-diners, Weber said he does try to serve local produce when possible. Offering G-Zen’s cuisine last week will be a break-even financial venture, Weber noted, but the investment in healthy-eating far outweighs the cost.
The Shadles, who opened G-Zen this past fall, have had great success in town, drawing in those familiar with vegan cuisine and others new to the idea who have found their restaurant intriguing. They’ve been busy through the winter and recently received a rave review from the New York Times. Hailing from a long background in organic, vegetarian cooking with his former Middletown-based restaurant It’s Only Natural where he was a partner, Mark and Ami have sought to expand their health-conscious initiatives into what Ami calls a “little G empire.” This summer you’ll see their vegetarian foodtruck GMonkey Mobile bringing “Farm to Street.”
In addition to spreading their "G," which stands for “green,” message around town and at local farmers’ markets, Ami shares that she and Mark are delighted to bring the offerings to BHS to educated students about living and eating more healthy.
“Both of us have made it our combined mission to go to schools and talk about sustainability, vegetarian options and the importance of supporting local,” Ami commented.
Mark, an award-winning vegetarian chef, is also part of the USDA’s Chefs Move to Schools program and recently became inspired to do more after visiting the White House in 2010 and hearing Michelle Obama talk about healthy eating for children.
Being invited to prepare more than 150 servings of vegetarian lasagna, herb-roasted organic root vegetables, vegetarian stir-fry, vegetable fried brown rice and mixed-green salad was a highlight for the newcomers to the Branford dining scene, said Ami.
“For us, it’s a victory,” she commented. “Not only to do a [cooking] demo, but seeing schools offer it right in line with the other choices; at this age level, kids are actually making informed decisions.”
Next up the Shadles will be cooking at and have several other schools interested as well. Chartwells plans to continue to offer different dining options for students for the $3-meal price; if you are restaurant owner and interested in cooking at BHS, e-mail Weber at email@example.com or call 203-315-6741.